Wifi is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in public. It started in cafes, then spread to hotels, pubs, then onto modes of transportation (which, I think most people would admit, elicited a bit of “this is the future, now do I get my jetpack” excitement) and now can be found in barber shops, and garden centers and the sides of cliffs. It has reached a point now where it is almost expected in any kind of place where people can sit for more than 3 minutes. On Twitter people regularly champion those places who offer free Wifi and berate those cave-dwelling troglodytes who don’t. If they are somewhere where they expect Wifi and it isn’t working, they often vent fury at the ineptitude of the providers. (This of course was wonderfully lampooned by Louis CK in a now infamous appearance on Conan where he describes a fellow passenger on an airplane who, having learned the Wifi connection was down, remarked “This is bullshit”, to which Louis offered amazement that people could become so irate at the lack of a service they just discovered existed…)
This desire for public Wifi is perfectly natural, and I myself have long been a supporter of free wifi in public and on transport. But recently I have found myself amused and a little concerned with our incessant demand for it. When I hop on the bus home on a Friday I almost immediately whip out my phone or iPad and make a connection to the buses Wifi service. This is despite having spend most of my day able to dip in and out of the web. I used to just sit there and chill out, either by dreamily staring out the window at the world going buy, or getting stuck into a book. Now I just roll my days browsing onwards, till I can get home and connect again. Things like the bus used to serve as a little break from the river of information, now it drives straight through it.
A friend recently expressed a wish that the train to Cork would have Wifi so he wouldn’t be bored. I jokingly suggest he read a book. That’s what we used to do on trains, wasn’t it? During the summer I had to get the train up and down to Dublin for the first time in ages due to my broken leg. Aside from the joy in rediscovering the views that unfold as we whizzed past, views that i have lost since I became a bus-user, I was also surprised to find that the Enterprise train service had no Wifi. This at first was slightly irritating, and it was then that I realized that I had become infected by this zombie need to connect. It was kind of a wake up call. I put away my phone and reveled in the little pocket of disconnection I had found.
Of course, you can simply point at me as a man with no will power. You can argue that it is my own fault I need (or feel the need to) connect all the time. This is something i have written about before, but my main point is that I have noticed this general trend towards expecting, almost demanding, the ability to connect, all the time, everywhere, amongst the general public.
I read an interesting article recently about the birthplace of Wifi cafe culture, San Francisco. It was one of the first places to see so many coffee shops offer the service, but in recent years there has emerged a kind of counter-culture movement which has seen venues ban Wifi, and even pride and market themselves as having no Wifi. I found this fascinating. As the city which has had this phenomenon for the longest, it is beginning to tire of it, and as the city has always done is rebelling against what has become mainstream.
I am, of course, a complete tech nerd. But I have found myself becoming a tech nerd who is ever-so-slightly concerned with how much technology has come to dominate our lives. I am not advocating smashing the machines, I love my gadgets, but I wonder if we need them all the time, constantly streaming to us information from afar. We need pockets of radio-silence. I don’t help myself by purchasing 3G enabled iPads and smartphones, but I think its a discussion we need to have. I have to admit, a little bit of me was delighted by hearing about coffee shops that champion their non-Wifi status. There is a bit of a tendency online to treat anyone who questions technology as a fossil, a luddite who just ‘doesn’t get it’. Its nice to see an alternative. Again, the problem isn’t the technology itself (it rarely ever is), its our relationship with it, and how reliant on it we let ourselves become.